Lessons Learned



“Muthal Kornal Mutrum Kornal (if you get the first move wrong, it will be completely wrong)” - Tamil proverb


The 16th of September marks the first anniversary of the historic peace talks between the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka.  The peace talks came to a standstill in April this year, in the aftermath of the LTTE being not invited to the conclave in Washington, which then snowballed into the boycotting of the Tokyo conference, the demand for an innovative Interim Administration and an exchange of letters between the parties in the place of direct talks.


The seeds for the breakdown of talks were laid at the very first round of talks.  An in-depth post-mortem of the first round of talks reveals what lead to the subsequent stalemate.


The primary interest of the LTTE in going to the first round of peace talks was restoring normalcy in the war ravaged North East and to demonstrate to the world that they are not mindless terrorists.  LTTE was desperate to prove to the world that they are a liberation organisation representing the interests of the Tamil Nation.   The Sri Lankan government on the other hand was desperate to rebuild the economy in the Sinhala south.  The economy was in doldrums, especially in the aftermath of the Katunayake attack in July 2001.


LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakaran clearly articulated this scenario at the press conference held on the 10th of April 2002. Prabakaran warned "We do not think that Ranil Wickremesinghe is capable of addressing the core issues and offer us a permanent solution at this stage; because the executive powers of governance are vested with the president and his powers are limited to parliament".  "But we wish to insist that the Ranil's government is not politically stable or authoritative or powerful enough to take up the core demands of the Tamils and offer us a permanent solution," the LTTE leader stated. "But, it is because of that we are suggesting the formulation of an interim administration set up in which the LTTE can participate in the Northeast. In the meantime Ranil Wickremesinghe will have enough space to build up southern Sri Lanka economically," he said


Agreements reached

Following is the list of agreements reached at the talks between the parties (sourced from the statement made by Vidar Helgesen at the end of the talks)

Ø      To take a step-by-step approach to the negotiating process to resolve the full range of issues pertaining to the lasting solution of the conflict. They highlighted the success in taking the same approach to the formulation of the Ceasefire Agreement.

Ø      To uphold the ceasefire agreement and expand the range of confidence building measures.

Ø      To establish promptly a Joint Committee to deal with issues relating to High Security Zones, with the aim of enabling the return of larger numbers of displaced persons to their areas of origin, thereby facilitating the restoration of normalcy

Ø      To establish a Joint Task Force for Humanitarian and Reconstruction Activities. The Joint Task Force will constitute a partnership between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE and will have the responsibility for the identification, financing and monitoring of urgent humanitarian and reconstruction activities in the North and East.

Ø      The parties also agreed that the establishment of the Joint Task Force is a sign of the increasing level of trusts between parties and of their willingness to work together towards the establishment of a provisional administrative structure for the North and East


I could not find the word "disagreed" or the expression "agreed to disagree" in the statements made by Mr.'s Helgesen, Balasingham or Pieris. The fact that the parties portrayed a rosy picture and did not have any disagreements boosted investor confidence in the south, paving way for an economic revival.  The record level of trade reported in the Colombo stock exchange and the profits reported by conglomerates like John Keells Holdings stands as witness to the economic revival. Therefore the primary interest of the Government of Sri Lanka, which was clearly identified by Prabakaran himself, was well and clearly addressed.


Opportunity Lost

In their eagerness to gain propaganda mileage, the LTTE negotiating team compromised their primary interest. In a letter to the Norwegian Foreign Minister in May 2003, the LTTE's Chief Negotiator, Mr. Anton Balasingham, acknowledges this blunder. He states "As you are aware, the issue of interim administration was taken up for discussion at the inaugural session of the peace talks in Sattahip, Thailand. Responding to the proposal of the LTTE delegation, Prof. Pieris explained the legal and constitutional constraints involved in the formation of such an administrative body outside the parameters of the Sri Lanka constitution. To avoid political controversy in the early stages of the talks the negotiating parties decided to replace the idea of an administrative structure with the establishment of a ‘Joint Task Force for Humanitarian and Reconstruction Activities’ for the Northeast.


It is very interesting to note that LTTE has enabled the Sinhala government to avoid a political controversy.  Is it their business to facilitate political harmony in the South?  As the sole representative of the Tamil Nation, the LTTE delegation should have negotiated for an Interim Administration setup. That was the primary interest at stake in going to the peace talks, not avoiding political controversies and playing to the media.  It was a good opportunity lost to the organization to bring to the attention of the world that the Sri Lankan government could not solve the problem due to political rivalries. 


The LTTE delegation was prepared to accept the constraints imposed by the constitution as an excuse at Sattahip, but was vociferous in demanding an innovative administrative structure, which is outside the constitution, seven months later.  It makes one wonder why the delegation failed to highlight the fact that the ceasefire agreement (which benefits the South more than the Northeast) was executed outside the constitution.  The Sinhala governments (both the PA and UNP wings) were prepared to sign a ceasefire agreement which benefited the South, even though it was outside the constitution, but have been hiding behind the veil of constitution when it comes to an interim administrative structure which benefits the Tamil Nation.


Further, the LTTE had more bargaining power, both politically and militarily, before the talks.  Therefore it is logical that had the LTTE delegation negotiated effectively they could have succeeded in meeting their primary interest effectively.  The Sinhala nation was weakened due to the confrontation between the President and the PM.  The Sri Lankan Army was soundly beaten in the last major confrontation between the two armies during Operation Agni Kihila.  The fact that LTTE held onto a unilateral ceasefire despite continued provocations had created a very positive image on the International community.  Therefore the pressure was on the Sinhala government to advance the peace process and revive the southern economy.


The LTTE delegation compromised all the above bargaining chips and accepted a mere Joint Task Force.  It is rather ironic that the LTTE delegation, which went to the negotiating table seeking an Interim Administration, came back with a Joint Task Force.  This is the same organization, which ridiculed the TULF for accepting the DDC after winning the 1977 elections on a Tamil Eelam manifesto.


The LTTE delegation failed to validate the legality of the Joint Task Force they have accepted.  This is due to the fact they did not have a resource person who is well versed in the Sri Lankan constitution.  The organization realized this mistake and has been since requested a legal draft, after the talks came to a standstill.  Had the organization verified the legal status of the proposals and/or suggested alternatives the primary interest of the Tamil Nation could have been fulfilled effectively.



LTTE's version

Addressing the press conference in Sattahip, Thailand, after the first round of talks with the Sri Lankan government, the Chief Negotiator of the LTTE, Mr. Anton Balasingham, said the LTTE would only seek an independent state “as a last resort” if the Tamil demand for “regional autonomy is rejected and conditions of oppression continue.” “Sri Lanka Tamil Tigers retreat on independence” (Reuters), “Tigers in dramatic concession (Bangkok Post) are some of the headlines that decorated the global media the following day. 


On the important topic of establishing an interim administration Mr. Balasingham said “To avoid political controversy in the early stages of the talks the negotiating parties decided to replace the idea of an administrative structure with the establishment of a ‘Joint Task Force for Humanitarian and Reconstruction Activities’ for the Northeast”.

In Summary, in its own admission LTTE made two concessions at the talks (incidentally they were the only two significant outcomes at the talks as well), one to consider an alternative solution to an independent homeland and the other to ACCEPT an alternative to the IA.  Importantly the LTTE did not express any negative sentiments about the talks.


Way Forward

The positive news for the Tamil Nation is that LTTE has realized that the peace talks are not going in the right direction.  This has prompted Prabakaran to revise his peace strategy.  The LTTE's decision to involve experts in preparing the response to the Government in regard to the Interim Administration is a move in the right direction.  One would expect this expert panel to be included in the negotiating team (as resource personnel) in the next round of talks.  The organization should enhance its resource panel with experts from International Economics, Economic development and Finance arenas as well. 


The negotiators also need to be briefed on negotiating techniques and conflict resolution principles.   The Harvard University project on negotiating methods is well explained in "Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without giving in" by Roger Fisher and William Ury.  The model explains a step-by-step approach to negotiating and has been proven effective in the corporate world.  The model is easily adoptable to any conflict resolution scenarios.  Interestingly, Nadesan Satiyendra (who participated in the Thimpu talks) has applied the Harvard Model to the Sri Lankan – Tamil crisis.  His analysis is published in the www.sangam.org website. The URL for the analysis is www.sangam.org/ANALYSIS/GettingToYes1999.htm


LTTE should consider the next round of talks as a new beginning and endeavor to take a professional approach to the talks.  The organization needs to plan and execute its strategy at the next round of talks meticulously and not to repeat the mistakes they made in the very first round of talks last September.